Behind Putin and Xi’s embrace, Russia is junior partner, analysts say

LONDON — Chinese President Xi Jinping is not known for public displays of affection.

So Xi’s double embrace of his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, last week — broadcast by Chinese and Russian state television — was widely seen as a calculated signal to the world of a blossoming personal and geopolitical relationship.

Putin’s visit to China underlined burgeoning economic ties between Moscow and Beijing as the two countries signed a series of agreements aimed at forging closer cooperation, even as the West tries to isolate Moscow following its invasion of Ukraine.

Personal warmth

The show of personal warmth was matched by a series of lavish state ceremonies, ostensibly marking the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations.

“It is a shared strategic choice of both countries to deepen strategic cooperation, expand mutually beneficial cooperation and follow the general historical trend of multipolarity in the world and economic globalization,” Xi told Putin during the talks in Beijing on May 16.

Putin praised increased bilateral trade between Russia and China, which had, he said, reached an annual $240 billion — and touted his ambitions to sell more oil and gas to Beijing.

“Russia is ready and capable of uninterruptedly and reliably supplying the Chinese economy, enterprises, cities, towns with environmentally friendly, affordable energy, light and heat,” Putin said following a visit to the northern Chinese city of Harbin.

Deepened cooperation

The Russian leader’s visit to China achieved its aims, according to Liana Fix of the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.

“(Coming) shortly after Putin’s inauguration, it had a legitimizing effect for his fifth term as president on the international stage, demonstrating that even if the West does not accept his elections as free and fair, China sees him as the legitimate leader.

“Second, it served the purpose of deepening defense cooperation between these two countries, especially by circumventing U.S. sanctions on Chinese financial institutions for financing Russia‘s war effort, and by facilitating further Chinese deliveries to Russia‘s war machine,” Fix told VOA in an email.

European snub

Putin’s visit to China came days after Xi traveled to Europe, where EU leaders tried to persuade him to end support for Russia’s war on Ukraine. It’s clear they failed, said analyst Velina Tchakarova, founder of the FACE geopolitical consultancy.

“China provides the main lifeline for Russia. But China also practically set the stage for Russia to not get internationally isolated. Russia officially has announced that it’s going in the direction of a long war that it wants to win, and here we see clearly that China is taking the side of Russia,” Tchakarova told VOA.

That alliance — what Tchakarova calls the “DragonBear” — has ramifications beyond Ukraine.

“These kind of wars, as the one being waged right now in Europe [in Ukraine], and similarly the one in the Middle East [between Israel and Hamas], and obviously also the military tensions in the Indo-Pacific — these are hotspots, military conflicts and wars that are to be seen in this context of emerging ‘Cold War 2.0’ between the United States on the one hand, and China and Russia, or the ‘DragonBear’ on the other,” Tchakarova told VOA.

Democratic threat

Xi and Putin are united by geopolitical aims, and their autocratic ideals threaten democratic societies, according to author Anne Applebaum, a staff writer at The Atlantic magazine.

“What they have in common is their dislike of the democratic world, their dislike of democratic language, and the ideals of freedom and justice and rule of law and transparency,” Applebaum said. “And they are willing to join together to fight against them. It’s a full-on central challenge from the autocratic world to them, and it’s attacking both their citizens and their allies around the world, and we need to face it.”

Unbalanced relations

The relationship is tilted heavily in China’s favor, Applebaum said.

“They may have an interest in weakening Russia. A weaker Russia has to sell them oil and gas at lower prices. A weaker Russia is a more pliable ally, is a weaker player on the stage. And maybe they’re hoping for that. It’s pretty clear already that Russia is the junior partner in this alliance, which isn’t something that we would have thought possible a couple of decades ago,” she told VOA.

Putin is due to host Xi at the October BRICS summit in Russia, as both countries seek to galvanize global support for their vision of Beijing and Moscow as major players in a new, multipolar world.

VOA’s Russian Service contributed to this report.

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